Veteran residential developer and builder brings variety of experience to seniors housing portfolio.
By Jeff Shaw
Jim King started building seniors housing properties in the early 1990s for the same reason that led many other developers to enter the sector at that time: He saw the lack of options for his aging parents.
One of the early leaders of HHHunt, King retired in 2013. He led the residential real estate company’s first foray into seniors housing in 1991. (That community, Spring Arbor of Thomasville in Thomasville, North Carolina, offers assisted living and memory care and is still in the company’s portfolio.)
“Jim had a passion for that line of business,” says Richard Williams, senior vice president of HHHunt Senior Living, headquartered in Blacksburg, Virginia. “His parents were aging, and he got to understand some of their needs and became passionate about providing care and housing for seniors.”
Harry H. Hunt III (for whom the company is named) launched HHHunt in 1966 as a multifamily developer serving the Southeast with an emphasis on student housing. Over the years, the company expanded into traditional apartments, single-family homes, master-planned communities, golf clubs and senior living, all while keeping its regional focus. A self-storage division was added this year.
The strength of HHHunt is its multiple divisions, says Greg Fox, the company’s senior living director of operations. The different business lines can support each other, and diversification helps the company survive real estate downturns. For example, seniors housing fared comparatively well during the Great Recession, when HHHunt’s single-family homes division was struggling.
“It’s nice to have that diversity that weathers those landscapes of commercial real estate,” says Fox. “We’ve made a real effort to make sure each division is not siloed; we’re synergistically helping each other.”
Building a brand
In the 27 years since Spring Arbor of Thomasville was completed, HHHunt Senior Living has built 33 seniors housing communities. With the exception of one value-add acquisition, HHHunt has developed all of its seniors housing properties.
Later, the company decided to narrow the geographic scope, selling off its properties in South Carolina and Tennessee. Its portfolio now comprises 21 Spring Arbor-branded communities totaling 1,262 units and 1,600 beds in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland. Five more are under development, which will add an additional 415 beds.
Spring Arbor communities exclusively offer assisted living and memory care, although Williams is “not opposed” to expanding into independent living in the future. Rents start at around $3,500 per month.
A typical Spring Arbor building is approximately 80,000 square feet, 100 beds and one story. Programming is focused on wellness, often through partnerships with local providers such as physical therapists. A good wellness program means fewer falls and physical issues for residents, meaning a longer, happier, healthier life, says Williams.
The company is also a big believer in being 100 percent owner and operator of all its properties — “no outside partners, no REIT money,” says Williams. Developments are funded through a combination of conventional loans and HUD financing.
“Since we both own and operate, then our success breeds more success,” says Williams.
Although the company is bullish on seniors housing as a whole, it is seeking “controlled, strategic growth” of one to two groundbreakings per year “in the right markets.”
“The future is pretty foggy these days for the entire industry,” says Williams. “One of our mantras is that ‘if you’re not growing you’re dead,’ but we don’t want to grow too fast.”
Focus on memory care
One particular area for HHHunt’s planned growth is in memory care, which generally accounts for approximately 40 percent of the beds in any given Spring Arbor community. The memory care areas are split into smaller cottages of approximately 20 beds each.
“The need is there for quality memory care programming,” says Fox. “We’re growing more and more into that cottage model, where our teams can interact and facilitate programming and care in a more intimate and dignified setting.”
Christine Stempel, a registered nurse and the company’s senior director of quality and education, says Spring Arbor’s cottage system creates a safe, enriching living environment for those with memory issues. The cottages offer clear sight lines, lots of environmental cues, and few corners and blind spaces that create challenges for residents.
“For residents struggling to make sense of their world, it allows them to see everything,” says Stempel. “It gives them familiarity. It gives them an ease in navigating and living in their home.”
HHHunt is currently working on research and development to further innovate its memory care model, says Williams. The company is considering making its neighborhoods even smaller and more boutique.
“You can’t be too much of a pioneer; we have to be methodical,” says Williams. “But given our long-term play in the industry, we want to make sure the product has that long-term success rate, something that we can add a little bit of our own stamp to.”
The company is also quite active in fundraisers and events for a variety of charities that seek to end Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“While we all want to provide a better quality of life for Alzheimer’s sufferers, we wish it wasn’t a business opportunity,” says Stempel. “We wish there was a cure. Supporting efforts that raise money for research is a good thing.”
Solving the labor riddle
A beautiful building and intelligent programming are only as good as the frontline staff in a seniors housing community. The industry continues to face labor headwinds: wage pressures, low retention rates, undersupply of qualified workers, and a massive demographic wave of incoming seniors that will compound these issues.
However, upon mention of labor, the HHHunt executives beam with pride.
“Labor is a challenge, and it’s a challenge every single day. That’s why one of our brand promises is to be employee-centered. The success of the company depends on the stability of our workforce,” says Stempel. “We want to be seen as an employer of choice. We work very hard to earn that distinction and live up to it every day.”
HHHunt recognizes that labor stability not only results in less time and money spent on recruiting and hiring, but also creates a better environment for residents. Consistency and relationships between workers and residents are important factors, especially in memory care.
The company starts by offering competitive pay and benefits to its 1,400 senior living employees, but tries to hire and retain the best workers by fostering a strong company culture.
“We want to help workers see that we’re defining a distinct culture that has value for the residents,” says Fox. “But what’s also important for us is life balance for our employees. We want to know our team members and empower them to be productive, but respect that balance. That shows value to them.”
The company often seeks input from its employees under a founding principal that Williams refers to as “best idea wins.”
“We keep open lines of communication on a daily basis,” says Williams. “We want our employees to speak their mind and share ideas. We’re all about empowering our teammates.”
Through a program called Cme (pronounced “see me”), managers conduct more regular one-on-one conversations with all employees rather than wait for annual performance reviews. This approach enables employees to be constantly improving while giving them a platform to voice their ideas and concerns about the company.
Employees are also recognized on a regular basis. There are daily recognitions, monthly goal celebrations, anniversaries and an annual awards ceremony for top employees.
“We really try to keep a spotlight on team members all the time,” says Stempel. “When a job is well done, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to say so. People who feel valued in their work are much more likely to be satisfied in what they’re doing, so we try to be very sincere and intentional about that.”
One of the main goals for HHHunt is creating a clear career path in an industry where workers can often feel stuck in a dead-end job. Internally, the company offers HHHunt University, which offers leadership development training. Courses are rotated among the various cities where the company operates communities. Employees can elect to attend on their own, or may be recommended by a manager.
Additionally, HHHunt offers an administrator-in-training program for those with their eye on an executive director position. Successful employees, such as nurses, can become designated mentors and help in the company’s training program.
Externally, the company provides tuition reimbursement for employees looking for certifications, such as becoming a certified nursing assistant or registered nurse.
“We like to support teammates that are interested in career growth,” says Williams. “If they want to take a shot, we’ll support them.”
The reason for HHHunt’s strong focus on labor is that the company realizes that employees hold the key to the company’s success much more than the real estate.
“It’s not about the bricks and mortar. We do have beautiful buildings and invest heavily in upkeep. But in the end it’s not about that,” says Stempel. “It’s about the team members we have on board and the programming, affording seniors to live when they come to us. We want them to still have the opportunity to live as vibrantly and interestingly as they did at every other stage in their lives.”